In Defense of Literature

Okay, I’ve got a challenge for you….

Name an informational text that inspired you to greatness.

Name a “how-to” manual that you committed to memory so that in the dead of night you could ward off evil, loneliness, or your current financial morass simply by whispering its powerful words.

Tell me, when was the last time you spied a tattoo of a graphic organizer or bus schedule wrapped around some meaty arm or leg?

At a loss?  So, am I.

There’s so much talk about the Common Core and how its going to save our democracy (i.e., capitalism) from that failing institution called “public school.”  The antidote seems to be grounded in a strong attraction to non-fiction, to the exclusion of the customary literary canon. I can almost hear the rationale… “If we only remove all the “girly” poems and “wussy” literary analysis from the English curriculum and replace it with dry, statistically based non-fiction selections our standardized test scores will soar far above China’s.”  Oh, yeah…that’s the classroom I long to be in….

But, when there’s so much money to be made in the privatizing of education, how do teachers and parents push back against the machine?  Well, some say it starts with leadership. Educational leaders who have a point of view that says the bottom line is not the score, it’s the student behind that score.  In a recent article in the Burlington, VT publication, Seven Days, Rebecca Holcombe proves she is that kind of leader.  As the new secretary of education for the state of Vermont, she tells reporter Ken Picard, “Any time you’re doing anything in a democratic institution, part of it is dealing with conflict.That doesn’t bother me, but the work is really hard, and it’s really hard to teach well. I wish people understood how complex teaching is because it’s easy to judge from the outside and say, “You should be doing better.”  We’ve got to stop talking about test scores and start talking about the act of teaching.”

It seems we could use a little Rebecca Holcombe in the state of New York right now.

This year, I have experienced what a data driven, informational CC curriculum looks like — in the modules I was instructed to “adopt.”  Modules that spelled out every question, every comment — right down to instructing me, “Tell the students you are working on grading their mid-unit assessment and will return them as soon as they are all graded.” Really?  Someone actually felt compelled to write that instruction into a lesson?

Be advised…I have no problem with increasing rigor in the classroom.  I have no problem with standards as such — even national standards.  But when someone tells me what literature I’m going to teach in order to deliver those standards, or defines my student by their score on a standardized test, even detailing how I’m going to organize the desks in my room, I  have a problem. A very big problem.

Let me tell you why.

It’s almost Christmas and we’re working on the same novel we started at the beginning of the school year.  It’s funny because the novel is written in verse, but we haven’t been instructed to discuss a single poetic device. We did have to spend almost 2 weeks dissecting a New York Times article about Vietnam’s warrior culture. My students kept wondering, “When do we get back to the book?”  Honestly, a puzzlement for me as well! As this selection drags on, and the modules keep coming in…hundreds of pages of lessons, mind you…I see less and less time available for some of the literary experiences that have meant so much to my students over the past 26 years.

Just so you know, I don’t have a problem with non-fiction; every unit I have ever constructed has had primary documents, speeches, articles, charts and the like interwoven with fiction.  I use assorted media…song lyrics, student videos, documentaries, popular films and cartoons. I would never suggest that an English classroom should have less than a balanced approach to all things “English.” I believe that true literacy means we can read for daily functioning (doctor’s orders, legal documents, nutrition guidelines, news articles, etc…) as well as novels, short stories and poems with their rich allusions, motifs and symbols.

I am no literary snob.

But, as I watch the days being voraciously snatched from my curriculum calendar, I am coming to terms with the sad fact that we simply won’t get to the Outsiders or David Copperfield this year.  As different as those two novels are, I can’t tell you how many students, male and female, unabashedly cry when Johnny dies and Davy is beaten and neglected by his controlling step-father.  When Davy reflects on the last time he saw his mother alive and how she had held his little brother up for him to see as the carriage pulled away from his once happy home, there isn’t a dry eye in the house…including my own. Sadly, my students this year will miss meeting Johnny, Pony and all the Greaser gang, as well as Davy, dear Peggotty, ebullient Mr. Micawber,  and all the colorful characters that bustled through Dickens’ dark and dangerous Victorian streets.  Swept away with them will be the accompanying non-fiction topics we would have also explored regarding child abuse, stereotypes, gangs, the advent of child-labor laws and the sad reality of stolen childhoods in sweatshops around the world today.

Even more disturbing is that we’ll not have time for the self-directed “Poetry Project” where my students seek out poets and poems that personally speak to them; creating their own illustrated anthology of published favorites, complete with author trading cards and a selection of their own poems.  Each finished book as exquisitely unique as the author who created it.

In the end, no one knows my students better than I do.  I know what they can and cannot do, I know what life experiences and losses they each cart with them in their over-loaded book bags  — I bask in  their sparkling personalities when allowed to shine and I wade into the ice-cold puddles of their discontent when forced to repeatedly practice the same skill set, day after day after day…in an attempt to attain a higher score on the state test.

But, the one thing I will not sacrifice to the Almighty Common Core is the end of the school year recitation. Each year my students must choose between two poems, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost and “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.  We read these poems, discuss their commonalities and their individual mood and tone, and then each student commits one to memory to be recited before their classmates by the end of June. Every year, students enumerate the many reasons why they will never be able to recite this poem in front of their classmates.  They wrangle, they whine, they vainly negotiate…and in the end, I proudly watch them perform the impossible as they confront their fears and blossom into self-congratulatory grins right before my eyes.  There is much applause from classmates, sharing of war stories, and assurances from veteran to novice that “it isn’t as bad as you think…”  In the end, they all survive — feeling a little wiser, a tad more accomplished, and vastly more impressed with their own abilities.

Almost on cue, the other day I watched the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life.  I listened intently as President Obama delivered a speech that was as much autobiographical as testament to Mandela’s personal life journey. At the end of this eloquent and impassioned speech, the President urged us to follow Mandela’s example; to find the inner strength to rise up against oppression, inequity and injustice in the world and in our own lives.  And, in closing,  he spoke of the sustenance that fed  Mandela’s soul in the darkness and isolation of his prison-house;

“And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell: “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

It was not facts nor figures, not treatise nor textbook that gave him comfort or kept his fear at bay.  It was a poem…a poem that he had once committed to memory that drove the darkness away and fed his will. A poem entitled, “Invictus.”  Only a poem, faithfully memorized and haltingly recited by thousands of students in the past…and hopefully thousands more into the future.

May we never lose sight of the value of emotion to inspire and empower us as we seek to create a society that reflects the best that we can be.  Words that touch our soul, that comfort us in our despair and lift us to greater glory than we ever imagined, are priceless beyond measure. In our scramble to be ‘first’ let us not forget it is the intangible will that makes the impossible possible, for if we listened only to the statisticians, we would give up before we even begin.

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4 thoughts on “In Defense of Literature

  1. so articulate! so much passion about literature, education and your students. so frustrating that the education system no longer values those attributes. keep fighting the good fight…

  2. You want inspiring?
    The Key… and the Name of the Key is Willingness. I forget the author, but amazon will remember.
    Also Kitchen Table Wisdom, by Rachel Naomi Remen.
    I love literature, but there are wonderful words available beyond it.

    • I couldn’t agree more! I personally read a lot of non-fiction and I will definitely look into the titles you mention. I just balk at the sudden rejection of literature from bureaucrats who don’t acknowledge its ability to heal and empower. Thanks for reading.

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